Every mother considers their daughter beautiful; I am no exception – that lovely smile of hers. Except … Andrea had a rare form of cancer affecting her parotid gland. At just thirty and newly married, surgeons were forced to remove her facial nerve on the affected side. Smiling became history, as did blinking, blowing out candles, shutting her right eye and many more everyday things.
Painstakingly, given time, she learned to smile again – albeit metaphorically and as a trained nurse, furthered her career by becoming Senior Lecturer at Hertfordshire Medical School. It was in this capacity she gave a talk, from her own unique perspective, to both patients and staff at a St. Alban’s hospice. As it transpired, only months before she died. Although Andrea never considered herself anything other than ordinary, her spirit and love of life was truly remarkable. I hope this extract from notes she prepared for her talk will help to illustrate this.
“Is it just a matter of talking?” she began – blunt and customarily to the point.
“Please, feel free to ask questions about my cancer, my surgery, and how I feel about my face, etc. We are all different, therefore these are my personal views, as both a patient and a nurse. By necessity, I have adapted. Take being photographed, for example, when I must remember to literally turn the other cheek to ensure it’s my best side facing the camera. There’s a positive side to anything – even walking sticks!!
Note to self:- Show them my amazing collection!”
(The cancer having spread to her spine and lungs, she was forced to succumb to the dreaded walking stick. Defiant, as ever, she bought quite a few in varying colours to match her outfits and they were indeed the snazziest, most brightly coloured ones she could find.)
“Oh, and whilst we’re on the subject of cheeks, this is intended to be a private word with the nurses and carers amongst the audience, so all inmates – cover your ears now! I don’t know if I'm being picky, but having breakfast stuck in front of me, however hungry I am, whilst I’m sitting on the commode, doesn’t do much for my appetite or my dignity. So think about it. OK, you can uncover your ears now!
I have to admit, prior to surgery I was terrified. Would I be able to kiss, play my cornet? Would it look like I’d had a stroke? Would my students be able to understand my speech? Well … can you?
Note to self: (Hope this generates a few laughs and more to the point, I hope they can!!!!! Then pass round ‘before and after surgery’ photos and hope they don’t scare people shitless)
How would my niece and nephew react to my appearance? Just talking things through makes all the difference … from both sides of the fence. OK,OK, I know, only too well, that a nurse’s and a carer’s lot is a busy one, but just taking the odd minute here and there for a brief chat isn’t asking that much. Is it? And having a hand to hold – turning beds to face the window … All these seemingly small things add up to so much. Especially as nowadays, cancer is what one in three of us have to learn to live with … Much more of a chronic illness than the death sentence it was once perceived to be.”
And live she did, cramming decades into her thirty-nine years. Just days before she died on New Year’s Eve, 2007, in St. John’s Utopian world, she said she had no regrets. Her misfortune had reshaped her and the person she had become was instrumental in helping countless others. ‘Life doesn’t come with money-back guarantees. In for a penny - in for a pound.’
Recently, I dreamt I was picnicking with her and her younger sister in a fairytale forest. It was idyllic, as fairytale forests, especially in dreams, tend to be. And so came the time for goodbyes, until I realised there was no need to say goodbye … not to Andrea, because now she is always with me. Her way of reminding me perhaps, that as she said, “There is a positive side to everything. Even death …” she might well have argued. Knowing Andrea.